I’m still reeling from 30 Rock coming to a conclusion (the Tracey Jordan pacemaker gag made it all worthwhile) and the abrupt return of My Bloody Valentine, with a new album (does this mean that Cube/Dre Helter Skelter project is going to appear in its entirety all of a sudden?). The profound senses of sadness and euphoria have cancelled themselves out and left me numb. So I couldn’t think of much that’s interesting to write about. I’m enjoying Adam Mansbach’s Rage is Back though, even though I approached it with trepidation. Mansbach treated racial politics and hip-hop culture with Angry Black White Boy in 2005, and on first announcement, I assumed this was a sequel. After all, a devolution into increased ignorance and a world where people actually argue for a white rapper’s “pass” to use racial epithets would justify another book on a similar subject. But Rage is Back is about graffiti writers and yes, I feel your anxiety when it comes to a novel on the topic.
Graffiti in its illegal, fleeting form is a thing of beauty. Trying to pin it down sonically or visually beyond mere documentation can render it corny. Trying to fictionalise it beyond tall tales of how up you were, or apocryphal tales of a prolific but barely-seen characters can be even worse. I’m a total toy when it comes to approaching the subject, yet I find myself drawn to anything relating to it, out of curiosity. Plus I have a few friends who are sick with it, so enthusiasm has been passed through conversations about oddballs, psychopaths and sociopaths with fumes on the brain and/or PCP habits. Whenever I hear about a fictional graffiti story, I think of Jon Chardiet as RAMO, a Golan-Globus sub-culture cash in, or Gleaming the Cube with fat caps rather than skateboards. There’s a lot of great graffiti books, but how much great graffiti lit is there without pictures? Nov York, The World Screaming Nov and Novurkistan by Nov/Loucious Broadway/Dumar Brown are autobiographical but lucid, troubling and brilliant, while Jonathan Lethem’s excellent Fortress of Solitude had a significant amount of graf in the plot too, which was assisted by Lethem’s brother being KEO, who has an insider knowledge of the culture’s folklore and then-unwritten rules. Salutes to Sofarok to putting me onto Alex Holden’s work in Syncopated with West Side Improvement‘s comic strip reenactment of the Freedom Tunnel’s development that includes the SANE SMITH story too (Holden’s site has previews of other graffiti-related strips like Stay Out of the Gorgon Yard, Take the A Train and Field Trip).
The aforementioned examples all succeed and Mansbach’s newest has a touch of the magical about it, like Lethem’s book, that sits with the addled, quasi-mystical (and yes, there is a RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ-alike) talk of the old heads the book’s narrator Kilroy Dondi Vance (the inspirations are overt) was raised around. At the core, the book is about fathers and sons, angry intelligent teens, demons, time traveling, corruption and politics, but the late 1980s and mid 2000s graffiti settings are the perfect places to fill those outlines. It’s well written too — eloquent and capable of juggling the many dialogues of this sub-culture, from straight talking, to adolescent dismissal of grown ups stuck in the past and the dusted metaphors of the old guard. Definitely recommended. For more on the subject, last month’s Brooklyn Radio with DJ Ayres talking to Chino BYI and Mansbach was superb, covering hardcore, graffiti’s existence without that hip-hop “elements” nonsense, book tours and other important matters.